CPJ seeks probe into report that soccer star assaulted journalist

New York, June 2, 2008—The Committee to Protect Journalists today called for a thorough and transparent investigation into a scuffle Friday between members of Cameroon’s soccer team and journalists following a pre-game press conference. Cameroon’s star striker Samuel Eto’o allegedly assaulted a reporter during the incident, according to local journalists and news reports. 

Philippe Boney, a reporter for the private Radio Tiéméni Siantou, said he suffered a broken left arm in Friday’s altercation and has been placed on six-week medical leave. Speaking to CPJ today from his home in the capital, Yaoundé, Boney said that he was still suffering from pain in his arm and his teeth. He said he had filed a police complaint against Eto’o, who is also a star for the FC Barcelona club.

Boney claimed that Eto’o head-butted him and bodyguards roughed him up after the journalist refused to talk to the star as part of a local media boycott of the team’s pre-match press conference at Yaoundé’s Hilton Hotel on Friday afternoon. About 50 journalists walked out of a press conference with players and coaches ahead of the World Cup qualifier match against Cape Verde to protest the team’s alleged hostility toward local media, according to Mutations reporter Steve Djouguela, who initiated the protest. Eto’o has not commented publicly on the altercation since it was first reported.

Four journalists present at the scene also told CPJ that they witnessed Cameroonian goalkeeper coach Thomas Nkono seizing the mobile phones of reporters attempting to document the fracas. Cameroonian goalkeeper Carlos Kameni took a camera from Marie Solange Mbarga, who was filming the scuffle on behalf of private broadcaster Spectrum TV, the journalists said. Mbarga told CPJ today that she still did not know the whereabouts of her camera. The camera of another private broadcaster, New TV, was seized and returned the same day without footage, according to media reports.

In an interview with CPJ today, Jean-Jacques Mouandjo, a spokesman for the Cameroon soccer association, quoted a press statement broadcast on national radio on Saturday in which the association deplored the incident and invited all sides to be calm. He said there were inaccuracies in some media coverage of the incident. Eto’s ire was allegedly triggered by an unidentified journalist calling him “illiterate” in response to the star’s own insults against reporters, he said.

In an interview with CPJ, Pascal Fouda, a spokesman for Cameroon’s Ministry of Sports and Physical Education, said the minister, Augustin Edjoa, “deplored these unfortunate incidents and severely condemned its authors.” Edjoa has called for a meticulous investigation into the matter and has written to the soccer association demanding an explanation, Fouda added.

Gustave Samnick, president of the Association of Sports Journalists of Cameroon, told CPJ that the incident reflected “barbaric aggression against a journalist” but said he welcomed dialogue with all sides.

The incident comes amid a period of repression in the country. Three private broadcasters remain closed since March for their pointed coverage of the unrest that engulfed Cameroon following a hike in the cost of living and President Paul Biya’s unpopular constitutional reform to scrap limits on presidential terms.

“Cameroon’s press has endured enough persecution without having to face this type of brutality,” said CPJ Africa Program Coordinator Tom Rhodes. “Sports stars are not above the law. CPJ calls on authorities to undertake a thorough investigation, to hold those responsible to account under the law, and to ensure all equipment is returned.”